In the struggle for the minds and pocketbooks of the American people, conservatives have discovered the importance of the blue-collar worker, the small farmer, the gas station attendant and the fabled little old lady in tennis shoes.
These are the people long celebrated by George Wallace, whom some conservatives consider more of a populist than a conservative. Now, the little givers left over from the Wallace presidential campaigns are contributing vigorously to competitive conservative groups that finance candidates, organize grass-roots political activity and lobby the Congress against gun control, abortion, school busing and Paul Warnke.
A variety of conservative political action groups proved their mettle, in the Feb. 22 special election in Minnesota's 7th Congressional District, where they contributed signigicantly to Arlan Stangeland, a Republican farmer who spent at least $120,000 to win a previously Democratic House seat. Stangeland is district leader of an activist "New Right" group, Conservative Caucus.
Encouraged to form new committees because of the federal campaign law's spending limitations and aided by modern direct-mail techniques, the conservative movement nos finds itself awash in money and manpower. Conservative political action committees will spend heavily to back ideologically preferred candidates in both the Democratic and Republican primaries in an April 5 Washington state special congressional election. They also are planning campaigns aimed at blocking defense budget cuts or any king of gun-control legislation.
There are now so many consrvative committees of one king or another in the nation's capital and nearby northern Virginia that even conservative militants sometimes get them confused. One the "Old Right," where the emphasis, is on economic conservatism, there is the American Conservative Union, which shares an ovelapping directorate with a political action committee, the Conservative Victory Fund. There aslo the Young Americans for Freedom, a number of whose leaders are prominent in another political action committee, the Fund for a Conservative Majority.
The "New Right" stresses the social issues beloved by Wallace - scholl busing, abortion, gun control, crime in the streets. They are represented by Conservative Caucus and in some degree by the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress, created by Colorado brewer Joseph Coors but now operated somewhat independently. In between, somewhere, is the election-oriented National Conservative Political Action Committee and a dozen singel-issue conservative committees.
And waiting in the wings out in Santa Monica, Calif., is the political action committee that could become dominant over them all - the newly created Citizens for the Republic, residue of Citizens for Reagan. Funded by $1 million left over fom Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign and headed by former Reagan aide Lyn Nofziger, this organization will be able to turn to Reagan's speechmaking talents if the coffers run low.
In one sense, Reagan's campaign and that of President Ford were artistic failures but financial successes. Reagan has the money left over because the Federal Election Commission went out of business temporarily at a crucial time in his race; Ford failed to spend $1.8 million that was raised for him by the Republican National Committee, which will get the money back.
So, future candidates in the GOP will be able to depend on a lot of ouside help both from their own party and from the political action groups. But there are some conservatives who wonder just how far the proliferation of new organizations can go.
"The conservative movement is kind of similar to the way the Communist movement was in the 1930s," says a conservative direct-mail specialist. "You have all these front groups. The campaign spending limitations have diminished the importance of the big fiver and have made emotional issues and issue-oriented fund-raising more important."
A number of these conservative "fronts" operate out of the spacious headquarters of Richard A. Viguerie in Falls Church. Viguerie, a onetime poor boy from Texas whose success at dire ct mail made him a millionaire, raised $6 million for George Wallace, an activity that makes him an object of suspicion among traditional Republican conservatives. He maintains a staff of more than 250 employees and sends out 250 million pieces of mail a year to more than 10 million Americans. He also issues the monthly Conservative Digest, supports the organizing activities of Conservative Caucus and does the direct mailing for such relatively independent groups as the National Conservative Political Action Committee.
The success of Viguerie's fund-raising and the spending limitations imposed by the federal campaign law have spawned a host of competitors, mimitators and offspring in the direct mailing for Ronald Reagan and for the Fund for Conservative Majority, a group operated largely by members of the Young Americans for Freedom.
Former Viguerie associates have become prominent in Republican fund-raising circles. The most successful has been Wyatt Stewart, finance director for the House Republican Campaign Committee, which this year intends to gross $6 million through a professional difect-mail effort.
"Tradionally, political committees have not hired the most competent people to do their fund-raising," says Stewart.
That has changed now at the House committee, which last year for the first time raised enough money to aid non-incumbents. This year the committee plans an ambitious program that includes institutional television advertisisng in 25 media markets.
The Senate GOP campaign committee also plans a more ambitious program and will try to raise more than $400,000 with the direct-mail help of Steve Winchell, another former Viguerie associate now in business for himself. Among other things the committee plans to employ two veteran media consultants, Robert Goodman of Baltimore, whose advertising launched Spiro Agnew, and Tully Plesser of New York.
"Because of the campaign law we've learned what the Presbyterian Church and the YMCA have known for a long time, which is that you're better off with a broad base," says Sen. Robert Packwood (R-Ore.), chairman of the Senate campaign committee. "These small contributions are really an untapped resource. You could run all the campaigns in this country with a maximum contribution of $1,000 if you gave a tax credit of $200 or $300."
Outside the GOP, direct-mail fund-raising has had a number of effects upon the conservative organizations that use it.
David Keene, a former aide to former Sen. James Buckley (Cons. R-N.Y.) and to Reagan, thinks that direct mail has made conservative organizations both more ideological and more accountable. They are more ideological because that is the way to get a response from constituents. They are more accountable because they have to answer to thousands of people whom they have promised something.
The financial broadening to the conservative base also has increased the tendency of conservative politicians to attack big business, on which they no longer depend for funds.
"The movement needs a visible break with big business," said weathervane conservative Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) at a recent Harvard political conference. "Big business has become the handmaiden of big governemnt . . . It is big business which is fighting deregulation. It is also leaders of big business who too often are isolated from the social and cultural problems affecting the middle class . . . "
Accompanying this new look at business is a growing pragmatism that is reflected in an increasing willingness to accept partial victories.
In this mood, Charles Black, a former aide to Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and now the head of the National Conservative Political Action Committee, talks of supporting Rep. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.) for that state's U.S. Senate seat "because we have seen a poll showing he can win." Pressler has a moderate voting record and is regarded as "a liberal" by some orthodox conservatives. But Black prefers him to what he thinks would be the alternative - a liberal-voting Democrat.
The National Conservative Political Action Committee came into existance in 1974 because there wasn't, at the time, and organization on the right which trained staff aides for political campaigns. It took in $2.5 million in 1976, netting about half of that, and hopes to raise $1.5 million in this non-election year.
The Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress, directed by Paul Weyrich, emphaizes organization and hopes to raise $300,000 this year to train staff aides, which it then provides to campaigns willing accept the committee's formula for winning elections.
Conservative Caucus, headed by onetime Office of Economic Opportunity Director Howard Phillips, is the most militant group of them all. Phillips wants to organize an effective lobby in every congressional district as means of "holding Congress accountable to the people." Phillips says his organization iss "engaged in guerrilla warfare on 435 different fronts."
The Conservative Caucus last year conducted seminars in 350 congressional districts in an attempt to train grass-roots leadership. Its fund-raising goal is $500,000, most of it from Viguerie mailers.
Whether there will continue to be enough money for all the conservative causes worries members of the Old Right like Human Events editor Thomas Winter.
"The individualist nature of conservatives is such that they all want their own group," says Winter. "But there's a finite limit on how much an individual can give."